Finding the Art in Everything

29 June, 2008

Home Thoughts from Abroad

I am home now from my Grand Tour of Europe with my students--London, Paris, Rome, and Florence. I was wishing earlier today that I had been able to blog as I went along, but I doubt I would have been pleased with the results.

In fact, now, as I seek to do high-points and low points in my characteristic list-style, I am annoyed already at my own cheesy superlatives.

But here is the thing: What else is there?

What does one use to describe the Colesseum? This ____ engineering feat and ____ amphitheatre in history until the last 50 years? What words go there that don't ALSO end in -est ?

And what of the Houses of Parliament, the lions in Trafalgar Square, and the Big Ben Clocktower? How could I describe things everyone recognizes?

Is there a more distinctive landmark than the Eiffel Tower? Surely that warrants superlatives.

The problem with the superlatives I'd need to describe where we were is that they don't really mean anything other than "big." And they might best describe the thing, but it doesn't convey the importance of the experience.

Why do we visit these things, anyway? What is it about them that makes it a universally meaningful experience? Why are they the things everyone is supposed to see before they die? How much of why we like them is because they are famous? How much of their meaning is derived from their status of recognition?

For the record, I tell the students about how the Eiffel Tower is a monument to the industrial revoltion and the cofidence of Man in machines' ability to create a better society. I point out, how, for better or worse, the tower is the symbol for a city that has been shaping and articulating western thought significantly for 500 years. I explain the government model found in Parliament, and Lord Nelson's role in defeating a geopolitical aggressor in Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar. The Colosseum represents the height of empire, and we talk about how the world interacts with empire and the fate of it. Maybe this helps, maybe the students don't care because what they are seeing is fantastic in its own right.

I am not much for getting a rockstar's autograph. I don't really see the point of a sharpie scrawl by someone whose quality of life on tour is generally lower than mine at home. I do like meeting someone though, if only to thank them for a good performance and for sharing their talent. But getting an autograph is very different from knowing the artist and cheering for them personally. An autograph is the landmark to say someone was there in person.

For me, the landmarks and the Kodak phototops serve as proof I was there in person. The point of going is to be in these places,though, not just get the pictures. My "show" this time included a conversation with the French Police about Sarkozy's security policy and the dilemma of immigration; refining my taste for cappucino at a couple of dozen cafes, mesmermized by the barista rhythm; and chatting with an Oxford-trained space expert in Holland park, after getting scones and cream.

The trouble I have with landmarks is that they can no more explain an experience than a ticket-stub signature can sing the solos and ad-libs unique to live music. Landmarks can barely explain their own reason for existence.

I think the difference between touring (which we certainly did) and travelling (which we did only a little) is the difference between an autograph and a performance. An autograph is useful in its own right, but only for nostalgia and status recognition. Much greater memory and delight is found in the actual show. Travellers seek the show more than the signature.

I hope my students when we were travelling were not so focused on getting the autograph that they forgot to enjoy the show.

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